School administrators across West Virginia have reneged on promises to provide students with advanced classes and save taxpayers millions of dollars through school closings and personnel cuts, an investigation by the Sunday Gazette-Mail has found.Instead, administrators bolstered their ranks over the past decade, even though school boards shut down more than 300 schools, and 41,000 fewer students now attend West Virginia schools.
?That?s an embarrassing revelation,? said Marty Strange of the Rural Schools and Community Trust. ?That?s bad news for West Virginia?s children.?
The Gazette-Mail?s examination of school closing documents, personnel data and high school class schedules showed:
State schools Superintendent David Stewart said the increase in school administrators statewide was beyond his control. The state school funding formula pays for fewer administrators every year.
But county school boards have used local and federal funds to hire more administrators, according to state personnel data.
Contrary to what he?s said in the past, state School Building Authority Executive Director Clacy Williams acknowledged earlier this month that school closings didn?t save taxpayers money.County administrators spent the money to add more classes and improve educational programs instead, he said.
?If we can?t improve the education of youngsters, then I don?t care if we save a nickel,? Williams said.
In Wayne County, school administrators promised rigorous Advanced Placement Courses in 12 subjects when three high schools merged into Spring Valley High. Today, the 1,100-student high school offers no AP classes. In Roane County, school officials promised to provide four levels of Spanish and three levels of German when they closed Spencer and Walton high schools in 1993. Today, consolidated Roane County High offers just two levels of Spanish. (When they were open, Spencer and Walton high schools provided three levels of Spanish plus German.)
And in Pendleton County, administrators promised zoology, calculus, Japanese and 22 other advanced classes to students from the former Franklin and Circleville high schools. Only one of those classes, drama, is being offered this year.
?There were wild promises. We knew it was pie in the sky,? said Bob Bastress, a West Virginia University law professor who represented Circleville residents in their unsuccessful consolidation battle in the 1990s.BGCOLOR="#75bce4">
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Williams said rural school districts would be in even worse shape if they hadn?t closed schools.
?Just think of the situation they would be in if they still had those small schools,? he said. ?At this juncture, they wouldn?t even be able to offer the core curriculum. They?re still way ahead of the game.?
Aborted study on savings
When the state School Building Authority opened its doors in 1989, school leaders predicted the agency would save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
The SBA would give counties money to build schools, provided they met ?economies of scale? ? size requirements that encouraged school consolidation.
Counties quickly lined up for the school construction cash. In school closing documents, they promised to cut administrators and teachers, and pump the savings into classrooms.
By 1991, then-Gov. Gaston Caperton declared the school closings saved the state $47 million a year on maintenance and personnel alone.
But 11 years and more than $1 billion in new school construction later, no one at the state Department of Education, School Building Authority or state Legislature has checked whether the predicted savings materialized.
The SBA started a review in the early 1990s, but halted it.
?We just haven?t had time to do that work,? Williams said during a 1997 court deposition. ?We?ve got 63 construction projects on our plate right now. ... There?s only so much you can get done.?
The SBA never resumed the study. County school officials wouldn?t cooperate, Williams said earlier this month.
?The superintendents didn?t get the information to me,? he said. ?I didn?t push it. I just dropped it.?
The SBA has no records from the aborted study, Williams said.
The agency doesn?t plan to examine the issue anytime soon because of the ?extreme difficulty and complexity of attempting such a study,? he wrote in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Gazette-Mail.
The savings from school closings are used to improve ?other aspects of school operations and services,? he wrote. ?To believe that efficiencies equal cash-in-hand is to be uninformed.?
The state Department of Education also hasn?t tracked the savings promised by county school officials over the past decade.
The department reviews county school closing documents, and the state Board of Education approves them.
The department shreds the closure documents and other records after three years.
Meanwhile, West Virginia education spending grew faster than most states in the 1990s, despite the massive consolidation drive.
The Mountain State?s per-pupil spending exceeded the national average for the first time in 1994.
Job cuts slower than student decline
For the past five years, state Department of Education officials have presented a budget report to legislators, claiming a sharp decline in administrators statewide.
They passed out a chart labeled, ?Administrators employed,? which shows a 25 percent drop in administrators since 1987.
In fact, more school administrators work in West Virginia today than in 1990.
The officials? report left out administrators paid by county school boards, regional state schools agencies and the federal government. It only included administrators funded by the state aid formula.
The chart was mislabeled, acknowledged Mike McKown, executive director of the Department of Education?s Office of Internal Operations.
?We don?t want to mislead anyone,? McKown said. ?There will be a different title next year.?
As the state cut personnel funding, counties turned to local taxpayers and outside sources to pay for administrators, teachers and service workers.
They didn?t cut as many employees as promised. Their cuts didn?t keep pace with the loss of students.
The state employs about 2,000 fewer teachers and service workers than a decade ago, but school boards would have to cut 3,000 more employees just to keep costs from rising. Personnel costs make up 80 percent of spending statewide.
In Pendleton County, the school board promised to cut 10 school employee jobs and save $200,000 a year before closing Circleville School four years ago.
The county has cut only three employees since then. And they?ve added a half-time administrator. Two hundred fewer students attend Pendleton schools.
?Did closing Circleville save money? I don?t think so,? said Ken Price, Pendleton County schools superintendent. ?That?s what we preached, but I don?t think it?s true.?
Some state and county school administrators say an increase in special education students prevented them from eliminating more teachers. But special education teachers have declined by 9 percent during the past decade.
School boards also promised to save some money on maintenance and utility costs with fewer schools.
Counties statewide now spend a higher percentage of their budgets on maintenance and utilities than five years ago, even after closing schools.
Advanced courses eliminated
In the years shortly after it first opened, Roane County High School students could take Advanced Placement classes in biology, calculus and chemistry. They had four levels of Spanish to choose from, three levels of German.
The German teacher departed five years ago and was never replaced.
Last year, the school struggled to provide Spanish and wound up holding an on-line ?interactive Spanish? class for students. A vocational teacher served as proctor. The course received bad reviews, said Assistant Superintendent Joe Painter.
This fall, the high school offered two levels of Spanish after two teachers were hired.
And the AP courses? Gone.
?Students here don?t want AP classes,? Painter said.
?That?s a darn tough test to pass.?
Roane County isn?t the only high school in West Virginia that has eliminated advanced classes that were promised when schools consolidated.
The Gazette-Mail examined high school consolidation documents and course schedules in 10 counties and found more than 100 advanced classes that were promised but weren?t offered in the past two years.
AP and advanced foreign languages were routinely scratched from high school schedules.
County administrators said they can?t afford to offer such courses. Student enrollment and state funding have dropped. They can?t find qualified teachers.
?It?s a matter of priorities and where the demand is,? Painter said.
?We?re adjusting our personnel to the needs of kids.?
Administrators didn?t promise the advanced courses ?in perpetuity,? said state schools Deputy Superintendent Bill Luff. Pendleton County?s closing documents, for instance, list the advanced courses as ?possible.?
Mineral, Wyoming and Cabell counties were the exceptions. Those counties delivered more courses than promised after closing high schools.
Some counties, such as Wayne and Roane, eliminated AP classes, and replaced them with dual-credit courses that enable students to obtain high school and West Virginia college credits at the same time.
State school leaders want to reverse that trend.
They want more students in AP classes. They say AP classes are more rigorous. Students who pass a test at the end of an AP course can receive credits from colleges throughout the nation.
Statewide, the percentage of high school seniors who took at least one AP exam increased slightly during the past six years, from 6 percent to 6.5 percent.
Less than half of West Virginia students who took an AP course passed the exam last year, down from 56 percent in 1997.
?Has the increase been what I expected? No,? Stewart said.
The superintendent and other state education leaders plan to prod counties to offer the advanced classes.
?It may relate to the leadership the superintendent brings to the county,? said state school board member Sandra Chapman. ?I?d like to think it still could be done.?
To contact staff writers Eric Eyre and Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.